In this article, our guest writer Kristal shares her experience of volunteering at The Mercy Centre in Bangkok, Thailand which has given her an enriching connection with Thai culture and an opportunity to experience local festivals and traditions.
For the past year I have been volunteering for the Mercy Centre. Every Tuesday morning I’ve walked into the Mercy Centre never really knowing what to expect. It’s been both daunting and exhilarating. The only thing I really know is that I will see the smiling, laughing faces of a bunch of three year olds. What usually happens is a cultural whirlwind and by the end of the day I might have learnt a few new Thai words, discovered something new about Thai culture, taught the children a new word or better yet have them asking for more.
The Mercy Centre is an NGO located within the Klong Toey slum in Bangkok. It is an organisation that is deeply connected with the community and has been working with the community to improve their lives for almost 40 years. The centre does a lot of great work and provides crucial services to the community. It provides a home for 200 orphaned or homeless children, legal aid for children in need, an HIV Aids healthcare program, 23 preschools and a community center.
I was put in touch with the Mercy Centre through the Muskoka Foundation, which is a platform for people wanting to volunteer and use their skills in a meaningful way while they travel. Finding the right organisation is one of the hardest parts of wanting to volunteer while you travel. Before I left New Zealand I knew I was going to be in Thailand for an extended period of time, and the thought of buying into a volunteer opportunity wasn’t appealing or feasible. By partnering with the Muskoka Foundation I was able to connect with a trusted organisation and skip some of the hard work.
While at Mercy I have been teaching preschool children English and assisting with funding research and proposals. My background is in social work and working with people who have experienced abuse and trauma, and this has been beneficial for my volunteer role. However my knowledge of child development and the impact of poverty on children’s lives has really expanded with the interactions I have had with the children and staff at Mercy. In many ways I feel as though the Mercy Centre has given me more than I can give back.
Prior to this trip to Thailand I had travelled for about 5 months over a few years in Thailand. I felt that I had some grasp of Thai culture, enough to know it was a country I loved and wanted to come back to. The most rewarding experiences during those months of travel were the times that I got to spend talking and interacting with the locals. Now I can see what I was missing! Incorporating volunteering into my travels has provided me with so many opportunities to experience Thai culture in an in-depth way, learn some of the language and have a richer experience.
While I’ve been at the Mercy Centre I have been able to celebrate festivals in a way no other traveler would have. One day in late November I arrived at the preschool to discover most of the children dressed up in traditional clothes, some with their hair and make-up done, there was laughter everywhere and the chatter of excited children. It wasn’t just an average day – it was Loy Krathong Day! Loy Krathong is a traditional Buddhist festival thanking the water goddess for her blessings, and a key part is releasing small decorated floating offerings known as Krathongs. This festival has been one of my most memorable days of all my time in Thailand. It was a festival that would have been hard to miss for the average traveler. Krathongs were on sale all over the city and all the major water ways in the city were crowded with people. But for me I felt like I got to experience Loy Krathong on a deeper level, I danced and sang with the children, paraded around with them and their Krathongs and watched while they gently released them into a paddling pool. Being able to watch the children and teachers celebrating and seeing those celebrations happening at school was like a window into Thai culture.
Volunteering while you travel can be hugely rewarding. I would encourage you to find something that fits with your skills. Contact Muskoka Foundation and talk about your options. If you are going to be in Bangkok contact the Mercy Centre, they take on a lot of volunteers every year and always have a need for more help. You don’t have to volunteer long term like I have been doing, you’ll be able to find shorter term projects. I have found that every day I volunteer I’m learning more, connecting with the children and staff more and giving more.
About the Author: Kristal Collis is a Social Worker, traveller and lover of Thai food. She’s been volunteering with the Mercy Centre since September 2012. To find out more about Kristal’s experiences living and volunteering in Thailand check out her blog The Big Mango Life.
Photos by Kristal Collis and The Mercy Centre, Bangkok
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